Widgets Magazine


To obtain closure: Dealing with the aftermath of national trauma

Practically all we hear on the news consists of stories of pain and suffering, the infliction of trauma on nations and their peoples. When an event inflicts trauma on a collective, people must deal with the trauma together, as well as come to terms with things on an individual level. We can use the events in France this past week as a case study: When an event that inflicts trauma on an entire nation ends violently, it can make overcoming the trauma much more difficult.

Last week, the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo was attacked by Islamic extremist terrorists as a result of its controversial depictions of the prophet Mohammed. Soon after, one of the suspects turned himself in; two others, plus a suspected additional gunman, were killed on Friday when backed into a warehouse during a standoff-turned-shoot-out with the police.

This particular national trauma is over. Completed. Finished. Now that all of the suspects have been removed from the field, there’s no chance that they can act violently again. Since the attacks are finished and the perpetrators are no longer able to inflict any more violence, it is tempting to think that people will now be able to quickly and easily process and heal from what has happened.

While it is true that the events themselves have come to a conclusion, this does not mean that people have finished dealing with the trauma.

With the quick end to the events as startling as the attacks themselves, Parisians and the rest of the world hardly had time to begin understanding what happened at the magazine headquarters before the suspects were killed. Under the circumstances leading up to their deaths, it is probably true that to minimize violence in the aftermath of the attacks, the police did indeed need to respond to the attackers with lethal action. Unfortunately, the stunning quickness of this response action may shorten the amount of time the events are discussed in public, likely preventing many from fully working through the psychological impacts of the attack.

If it had been possible to take the suspects alive, people would have time to process the actual attacks for at least a little more time before having to think about the attackers and what might be appropriate punishments, especially if the event is in the context of a something greater, like a war on terror, as was the case with Guantanamo detainees.

A conclusion in violence, as it happened with the Charlie Hebdo attackers, can leave people feeling empty and unfulfilled. Despite the lack of imminent danger, there is no way to bring the suspects to justice within the system. Thus, we lose the possibility to feel as though the deceased have been vindicated.

A simple execution without determining guilt through the established system would not give the same feeling of satisfaction as an execution following a trial and a verdict of the death penalty. With a trial, the condemnation to death would be justified. It may not be the case that at the end of the justice proceedings, the public will feel satisfied with the outcome, such as was the case in Ferguson, but it is important to not sacrifice our principles of justice simply because we feel incensed or particularly hurt. If the justice system produces undesirable or unjust results, it then becomes the responsibility of the public to push for a structural change. This way the power still rests in the hands of the people.

Bringing the offenders to trial would not bring the fallen back. However, having a trial and working within the justice system would allow for the construction of an official, collected and recorded narrative of the attack as it had happened, which would certainly help individuals to process things. If there is a coherent narrative about what happened, it is easier to see the connections between events, as well as causality, and thus people would be able to have a common story to process. It is much easier to work together to process a single story different ways than it is to process multiple stories in multiple different ways.

Additionally, a drawn-out trial and media coverage would help people particularly traumatized work through their thoughts and feelings by processing them in an external manner. Talking with others about events is one of the most common ways to deal with trauma. It helps to form connections with others over the events, and it could be helpful to hear alternative perspectives or strategies for dealing with the attack that would be difficult to derive in isolation.

Collective trauma almost requires an extent of collective healing. If we want to heal the effects of these traumatic events, we have to work together to do it.

Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu.